Six approaches for social media adoption – 4. converse

I’m back from holiday, relatively refreshed, and feeling bad with the realisation of how long I have been stringing this series out. This wasn’t deliberate on my part and I will try and bang the last three out in quick order (not easy for a blogger as lazy as I).

So, to ‘converse’, the fourth approach.

When I was pulling the approaches to social media paper together over eighteen months ago,  I imagined this to be the real meaty opportunity – devolving discretion to policy owners (thought leaders) and press officers to join existing conversations. To give them the opportunity to offer their thoughts or advice and correct any misconceptions or factual errors.

I say ‘devolving discretion’ (or should I say, said) rather than ’empower’ because then, as now, there was considerable nervousness higher up in the towers of Whitehall about completely letting go and signalling a free for all for civil servants to dive into participating. Devolving discretion in this context means a more measured approach – providing guidelines, setting operating parameters etc.

The strength in allowing civil servants to take part in conversations is obvious. Intervention to correct factual errors could prevent stories unreasonably gaining a life of their own. Its also a great opportunity to build relationships and trust with stakeholders by demonstrating transparency and honesty through conversations.

On the flip-side its important that this is not seen as an outlet for formal rebuttal. Attempts to use the tools for this purpose could seriously impact an organisation’s credibility. From a corporate perspective, its also important to recognise that many staff will need some kind of training or help to give them the skills for the job.

So, some great opportunities to ‘humanise ‘government, increase engagement, to crowdsource and develop early stage policy ideas – garnering opinions from activists and communities before narrowing down to formal policy options.

But there are dangers. Adopting an informal approach could backfire if the correct conversational and personal tone is not adopted and/or perceived to be insincere – especially around emotive and high profile issues. Identification of individuals or groups of civil servants online could also make them open to personal attack and flaming from those with malicious intent.

In terms of cost and resource, I think by this point some dedicated specialist resource is  essential to support, guide and mentor officials engaging in debate. Certainly people will probably require some support at set up and need to know someone is available to help them if they have concerns or problems.

So, that’s four down. Two to go.

  1. I think there is also a case for being clear about purpose, scope and roles. Some of the examples of exasperation I have seen have resulted from either people expecting a communications channel to be a service channel or vice versa. or where people confuse /conflate the Civil Servant with the “political”.

  2. Mark’s right – there’s an interesting line somewhere between the kind of policy justification an official would write in a letter to a correspondent, and the kind of policy defence that a minister should properly do (and frankly is likely to do more effectively than an official would).

    As we put together our guidance for staff on the rules of engagement, I can envisage some kind of ready reckoner which defines the kinds of things an official might properly say in online conversation, including:

    – ‘thanks for the feedback’ acknowledgment
    – ‘tell us more about that…’ encouragement
    – ‘get involved in…’ exhortation
    – ‘take a look at…’ signposting
    – ‘sorry, we meant…’ administrative mea culpa
    – ‘so what does that mean for…’ exploratory questions
    – ‘actually…’ clarification

    There are probably more… I’m hesitant to make a list here of the things an official *shouldn’t* say online, but I think it probably goes beyond avoiding the merely party political.

    • Andy Paynton
    • September 9th, 2008

    Now that the MoJ has got caught up in the media panic around data protection (I’m not downplaying the issue just the way it is reported) are you girding your loins for when they move onto social media after the first widely reported case of someone posting something commercially/politically sensitive on Facebook.

  3. Hi All,

    You may find some elements of your recommendations in my blog…working in trade, it was designed with the intention to help introduce my clients to opportunities, and to understand a bit about the market in which they will operate.


  4. Hi Andy, just found your comment in my spam filter 😦 It remains to be seen…. 🙂

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